Burns on Trump: 2016 Stanford Commencement (Excerpt)

Ken Burns excerpt:

For 216 years, our elections, though bitterly contested, have featured the philosophies and character of candidates who were clearly qualified. That is not the case this year. One is glaringly not qualified. So before you do anything with your well-earned degree, you must do everything you can to defeat the retrograde forces that have invaded our democratic process, divided our house, to fight against, no matter your political persuasion, the dictatorial tendencies of the candidate with zero experience in the much maligned but subtle art of governance; who is against lots of things, but doesn’t seem to be for anything, offering only bombastic and contradictory promises, and terrifying Orwellian statements; a person who easily lies, creating an environment where the truth doesn’t seem to matter; who has never demonstrated any interest in anyone or anything but himself and his own enrichment; who insults veterans, threatens a free press, mocks the handicapped, denigrates women, immigrants and all Muslims; a man who took more than a day to remember to disavow a supporter who advocates white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan; an infantile, bullying man who, depending on his mood, is willing to discard old and established alliances, treaties and long-standing relationships. I feel genuine sorrow for the understandably scared and—they feel—powerless people who have flocked to his campaign in the mistaken belief that—as often happens on TV—a wand can be waved and every complicated problem can be solved with the simplest of solutions. They can’t. It is a political Ponzi scheme. And asking this man to assume the highest office in the land would be like asking a newly minted car driver to fly a 747.

As a student of history, I recognize this type. He emerges everywhere and in all eras. We see nurtured in his campaign an incipient Proto-fascism, a nativist anti-immigrant Know Nothing-ism, a disrespect for the judiciary, the prospect of women losing authority over their own bodies, African Americans again asked to go to the back of the line, voter suppression gleefully promoted, jingoistic saber rattling, a total lack of historical awareness, a political paranoia that, predictably, points fingers, always making the other wrong. These are all virulent strains that have at times infected us in the past. But they now loom in front of us again—all happening at once. We know from our history books that these are the diseases of ancient and now fallen empires. The sense of commonwealth, of shared sacrifice, of trust, so much a part of American life, is eroding fast, spurred along and amplified by an amoral Internet that permits a lie to circle the globe three times before the truth can get started.

We no longer have the luxury of neutrality or “balance,” or even of bemused disdain. Many of our media institutions have largely failed to expose this charlatan, torn between a nagging responsibility to good journalism and the big ratings a media circus always delivers. In fact, they have given him the abundant airtime he so desperately craves, so much so that it has actually worn down our natural human revulsion to this kind of behavior. Hey, he’s rich; he must be doing something right. He is not. Edward R. Murrow would have exposed this naked emperor months ago. He is an insult to our history. Do not be deceived by his momentary “good behavior.” It is only a spoiled, misbehaving child hoping somehow to still have dessert.

And do not think that the tragedy in Orlando underscores his points. It does not. We must “disenthrall ourselves,” as Abraham Lincoln said, from the culture of violence and guns. And then “we shall save our country.

This is not a liberal or conservative issue, a red state, blue state divide. This is an American issue. Many honorable people, including the last two Republican presidents, members of the party of Abraham Lincoln, have declined to support him. And I implore those “Vichy Republicans” who have endorsed him to please, please reconsider. We must remain committed to the kindness and community that are the hallmarks of civilization and reject the troubling, unfiltered Tourettes of his tribalism.

The next few months of your “commencement,” that is to say, your future, will be critical to the survival of our Republic. “The occasion is piled high with difficulty.” Let us pledge here today that we will not let this happen to the exquisite, yet deeply flawed, land we all love and cherish—and hope to leave intact to our posterity. Let us “nobly save,” not “meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”


Burns is on point.  There was a time when we expected more from our politicians and representatives, and especially from any candidate for president.  There was a time when we were better men.  Now we are so desperate for an icon that we buy into the cheap tricks of a confident charlatan, muttering the somber refrain, “so it goes.”

It is not my intention to turn this into a political blog.  Considering the danger that Trump poses to the country, however, I would be remiss if I did not express (at least some) of my thoughts.  Consequently, I suspect there may be some more Trump-posts before November.

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6 thoughts on “Burns on Trump: 2016 Stanford Commencement (Excerpt)

  1. What are your thoughts concerning the bias of the media and their portrayal of candidates? The reality is that everyone has a bias, and it’s hard not to act on those biases. For example, Fox News generally portrays Trump as the choice candidate and CNN generally portrays Hilary as the choice candidate. I’m interested in your thoughts.

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    • I’m not sure if that’s the right question to ask in this particular election. Fox News always backs the right-wing choice, MSNBC almost always backs the left-wing choice. CNN isn’t as consistently right or left, but they are consistently a mediocre news outlet (though this criticism likely extends toward most, if not all, cable news). Personally, I don’t really watch cable news (I find it vapid and uninformative), so it is hard for me to answer your question directly, but I’ll do the best I can.

      Instead of thinking about who or what media supports which candidates in some biased or unbiased way, it makes more sense to talk about what role the media plays in this election specifically, and whether the role they play benefits one candidate over another. I’m inclined to think that it does, and, moreover, that it benefits Trump more than Hillary. This has much to do with the fact that Trump understands the media far better than any other candidate, and knows how to use it as a persuasive/manipulative tool. Additionally, the way that the media actually works caters much better to Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric than it does Hillary’s intellectual dispassion. I’ll expand on these last two points (which are related, I think).

      Trump is a media mogul. He is well-connected to media outlets. And he understands how people respond to media. Media creates narratives by telling the same story again and again and again, *ad nauseum*. Trump can perform outrageous actions, and then boast that *he’s* not at fault, and will repeat again and again until people no longer care or they just believe his story out of habit. He knows how to command airtime, how to bring publicity to his campaign, and how to keep the camera fixated on him such that he is the only thing that is even *relevant*. Regardless of the political leaning of any particular media outlet, Trump understands how to turn all media attention (negative or positive), into an advertisement for his presidency.

      And now the second point. Twitter, Facebook, and 5-10 minute long news segments are not the appropriate stadiums for substantive policy discussion. Instead, they all consist in what I will call, “microcontent” – content that requires no critical engagement, no attention span, and is spoon-fed to the consumer. And this is exactly the sort of content Trump excels at purveying. His comments are rude, impulsive, thoughtless, brief, and emotionally charged; he brands adversaries with diminutive names, taunts and heckles them relentlessly. But this is exactly the sort of thing that can gain traction on platforms like Twitter. The content is easily digested, invokes an emotional response from the consumer, and is delivered with enough frequency such that people either *buy into it* or else become desensitized to it. Twitter, Facebook, and cable news all encourage this kind of behavior because it attracts viewers or clicks or whatever — its *sensational* — people want a superficial, hard-hitting, bumper-sticker slogan that they can “like” and is short enough for them to maybe pass on to their friends. Trump has this down. Hillary does not. Hillary is intellectual and dispassionate — her strength is her depth of thought, not the zest of her one-liners. In any policy discussion Hillary will mop the floor with Trump — but policy discussions do not attract viewers. And Hillary can’t play in the gutter with Trump because for some reason we find Trump’s actions excusable; if Hillary had done or been accused of any of the things that Donald Trump has, then Hillary would simply not be a competitive candidate.

      I think that there is a lot more to say on this topic, but I should reign this in. In short, the media benefits Trump, regardless of what the political affiliations or biases of any of the particular media outlets may be.

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      • That’s a very interesting point of view. You definitely presented a lot of good points. If all press is good press, then Trump is definitely getting the best of the press.

        On another note, I have noticed clear biases from media on both sides. I’m not necessarily saying that having a bias is wrong. I’m just under the opinion that media should try to hush their bias and report facts. What is your opinion on this topic?

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        • It’s a little more severe than all press is good press though. Clearly not all press is good press for Hillary. Trump has this uncanny ability of being immune to bad press in a way that other candidates are not.

          I’m not sure if it is possible for the media to “hush their bias and report facts.” This is because there is no incentive for them to do so. News media is driven by ratings, and ratings are driven by drivel. A news broadcast that reports “just the facts” and leaves the interpretation to the viewer is going to be far less entertaining, which will drive down ratings. Moreover, it can be an effort to interpret facts, which is why we have political pundits and anchors who frame the story in a certain way, lock it into a certain narrative, so that the viewer can be spoonfed “information” without ever having to reflect. Reporting “just the facts” isn’t the sort of thing that the news is designed to do.

          I don’t think its about eliminating bias. It’s more important to reduce sensationalism and to elevate the level of discourse on news programs. And here’s where I get a little idealistic: the news media should be performing a public service, namely fostering an informed electorate, shining the spotlight on important (inter)national issues, and determining the subject-matter of our national discussions. Media bias affects all the aforementioned, often in an undesirable way – but you could still have all the aforementioned even with the presence of some moderate bias – and that’d be ok.

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        • Very well said. I agree that the ratings would drop if a news station just presented facts without adding their own flare or opinions. Maybe I’m idealistic to want that to be a reality. I guess that’s also why I like interviews a lot; you hear straight from the horses mouth.

          I’m also for the media vetting the candidates to a certain degree. Interviewing a candidate’s ex-girlfriend from elementary school (not a real example) would be unnecessary vetting, but looking at a candidate’s experience, consistency, and character makes sense. We need to hear from the candidates, but we also need to compare their words with their actions. That should be the primary role of media in elections. The media’s form of vetting, however, tends to favor entertainment over information.

          Well informed people (I would put you in this category) usually have the ability to discern between fluff and fact, but many others are being brainwashed by biased media. They take up the agenda of whatever news station they watch.

          Thoughts?

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  2. I’m not sure if its right to report just the facts. For a news viewer, facts should come with some sort of interpretation on hand, or else it may not be clear what they should do with the information, why it is relevant or newsworthy, or how it fits into whathaveyou.

    I do not think that the media is responsible enough to vet candidates. And remember that the media is first and foremost a business. So they have a stake in influencing the elections. It is better for candidates to be vetted by a more impartial entity. Experience, consistency, and character are all complex judgments. Vetting should be focused more on finding the “red flags” rather than assessing the unique qualifications of each candidate.

    I agree that the media influences public opinion too much, however. The solution to that (assuming we do not or cannot really affect the kind of role the media has) is to invest in education like a motherfucker.

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